The Magic of Small World Play

Posted by Mandy Abel on

"When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero.” Fred Rogers

Small world or pretend play is a type of play in which children create and act out scenarios or stories using their imagination. It can involve playing with dolls, action figures, or other toys, or it can simply be using objects in the environment to create a scene.

Small world play allows children to develop their creativity, social skills, and problem-solving abilities. It also helps them learn about the world around them and practice different roles and situations. It is a fabulous open-ended activity with no predetermined outcome - allowing children to use their creativity and problem-solving skills to come up with their own ideas and solutions.

The Benefits of Small World Play

There are many benefits to small world play for children. It can help develop their language skills, as they describe what is happening in their play and to communicate with their playmates or caregivers.

Small world play can also help children develop cognitive skills, as they learn to think creatively and plan and execute their play scenarios.

While small world play is a wonderful solitary activity, there are many additional benefits to playing in small groups. When children play together, they have the opportunity to learn from and interact with each other. This helps build social skills such as cooperation and communication, as they learn to take turns, share and negotiate with others. 

Small World Set up with Animal FigurinesA small world set up can be as simple or elaborate as you choose. This one uses a play silk, wooden canoeanimal figurines and natural treasures - all of which would work well in many different scenarios or themed set ups.

Our Top Toy Picks

Open ended toys that can be used in a variety of way are ideal for small world play. Some examples include: 

  • Dollhouses and doll figurines allow children to create scenarios using their imagination as well as recreate real life situations they may have experienced. Dolls can also be used to teach children about different types of homes, family structures and cultures, and provide a way for children to explore and understand the world around them.

  • Animal figurines allow children to create stories based on animals and their natural habitats, encouraging children to learn about different creatures, their characteristics, behaviour and where they live. They can set up scenes involving farms, zoos or wilderness habitats or create their own magical worlds. 
  • Wooden Building blocks: Children can use blocks to create miniature structures and environments for their small world play. The natural look and feel of wooden blocks and the variety of shapes and sizes can inspire creativity and imagination and are beautifully open ended for all types of play.

  • Vehicle and transportation sets such as cars, planes and boats, can be used to create scenes and stories based on transportation and travel, encouraging children to explore the world and learn about different modes of transportation.
  • Natural materials such as acorns, rocks, shells, and branches can be used to create miniature landscapes, habitats and natural scenes for small world play. These materials provide a tactile and sensory experience, encouraging children to explore and discover their natural world.

  • Train sets: Train sets allow children to create their own transportation systems and landscapes, encouraging them to explore and understand the world of trains and transportation. Tracks can be used to create a variety of layouts and scenes and can be combined with buildings, trees and other accessories to create a complete small world.

  • Play silks, scarves, blankets and scraps of material are great to provide a base to almost any kind of set up, from farmyard to beach to backyard scenes.

Wooden Tree House Play Sets for Small World PlayOur range of natural tree houses are a truly open ended small world toy - from a jungle set up, dolls house, bug hotel, zoo or even fire station - the possibilities are endless!
    Bookish Play

    Books are another great addition to small world play. "Bookish Small World Play" refers to the use of small-scale, book-themed dioramas or play scenes to encourage children's imagination and reading skills. Similar to small world play, everyday materials such as cardboard boxes, paper and small figurines are used to recreate scenes from favourite books or to create new, imaginative stories.

    The small world set up can be used to act out the story - children can retell the story or create their own. It encourages them to think critically about the book they are reading, and to make connections between the book and their own lives. Bookish play is perfect for classroom settings or home and can be a fun way to engage children with literature and encourage their imaginations.

    We're Going On A Bear Hunt Play Scape

    A bookish play set up using our Bear Hunt Felt Play Scape. This open ended mat is also great for other small world and animal set ups. Image Credit: Tara Treasures

    How to Support Small World Play

    Parents and caregivers can support small world play in several ways. Providing children with a variety of open ended toys and materials that can be used for different themes of play is a great start. It doesn't have to cost the earth either - by choosing open ended toys you will find they can be repurposed for many different types of scenarios. Items from around the house such as egg cartons, blankets, old magazines and craft materials are low cost but provide plenty of scope for creativity.

    Creating an environment that is conducive to small world play is also key - offer a space where children can spread out and set up their play scenes - somewhere it's ok to be a little untidy! 

    It is important to be present and available to support your children's play, but to refrain from leading. This allows freedom to direct their own stories and make their own decisions.

    And lastly, switch things up to keep it interesting! This could look like setting up a full play scene for little ones, or simply providing the props and space for older children to set up their own worlds. You can use small tables, mirrors, shelves or even the outdoors to display your resources and spark new narratives in play.

    Small World Fairy Toys NZ
    Taking your small world toys outside can add a whole new dimension to play and take creativity to a deeper level. Our on the go fairy play set is a great example of a toy that works well indoors and out.  

    "Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning." 

    Small world play is an important (and fun!) part of childhood development. Children have a natural desire to explore and make sense of the world around them, and small world play is one way that they do this. 

    By providing children with the right materials and creating an environment that supports small world set ups, parents and teachers can encourage this type of play in their homes and education centres and help little imaginations take flight✨

    "Through observing children at play, we recognize what their worries, concerns, and fantasies are. We learn about their basic needs, their feelings of love and anger, their rivalries and fears of failure, their secret wishes and desires.” Dorothy and Jerome Singer (American Psychologists)


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